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In its general strain and spirit, tragedy is favorable to virtue. Characters of honour claim our respect and approbation ; and, to raise indignation, we must paint a person in the odious colours of vice and depravity. Virtuous men, indeed, are often represented by the tragic poet as unfortunate ; for this happens in real life. But he always engages our hearts in their behalf; and never represents vice as finally triumphant and happy. Upon the same principle, if bad men succeed in their designs they are yet finally conducted to punishment. It may therefore be concluded that tragedies are moral compositions.
It is affirmed by Aristotle, that the design of tragedy is to purge our passions by means of pity and terror. But perhaps it would have been more · accurate, to have said, that the object of this species of composition is to improve our virtuous sensibility. If a writer excite our pity for the afflicted, inspire us with proper sentiments on beholding the vicissitudes of life, and stimulate us to avoid the misfortunes of others by exhibiting their errors, he has accomplished all the moral purposes of tragedy.
In a tragedy it is necessary to have an interesting story, and that the writer conduet it in a natural and probable manner. For the end of tragedy is not so much to elevate the imagination, as to affect the heart. This principle, which is founded on the clearest reason, excludes from tragedy all machinery, or fabulous intervention of gods. Ghosts alone, from their foundation in popular belief, have maintained their place in tragedy.
To promote an impression of probability, the story of a tragedy, according to some critics, should never be a pure fiction, but ought to be built on real facts. This, however, is carrying the matter too far
For a titio
tale, if properly conducted, will melt the heart as much as real history. Hence the tragic poet mixes many fictitious circumstances with well known facts. Most readers never think of separating the historical from the fabulous. They attend only to what is probable, and are touched by events, that resemble nature. Accordingly some of the most affecting tragedies are entirely fictitious in their subjects. Such are the Fair Penitent, Douglas, and the Orphan.
In its original, tragedy was rude and imperfect. Among the Greeks it was at first nothing more than the song which was sung at the festival of Bacchus. These songs were sometimes sung by the whole company, and sometimes by separate bands, answering alternately to each other, and inaking a chorus. To give this entertainment some variety, Thespis, who lived about five hundred years before the Christian era, introduced a person between the songs, who made a recitation in verse. Æschylus, who lived fifty years after him, introduced a dialogue between two persons or actors, comprehending some interesting story; and placed thein on a stage adorned with scenery. The drama now began to assume a regular form; and was soon after brought to perfection by Sophocles and Euripides.
It thus appears that the chorus was the foundation of tragedy. But, what is remarkable, the dramatic dialogue, which was only an addition
to it, at length became the principal part of the entertainment, and the chorus, losing its dignity, came to be accounted only an accessary in tragedy. At last, in modern tragedy, it has entirely disappeared ; and its absence from the stage, forms the chief distinction between the ancient and modern drama.
The chorus, it must be allowed, rendered tragedy more magnificent, instructive, and moral. But on the other hand it was unnatural, and lessened the interest of the piece. It removed the representation from the resemblance of life. It has accordingly been with propriety excluded from the stage.
The three unities of action, place, and time, have been considered, as essential to the proper conduct of dramatic fable. Of these three, unity of action is undoubtedly most important. This consists in the relation which all the incidents introduced bear to some design or effect, coinbining them naturally into one whole. This unity of subject is most essential to tragedy. For a multiplicity of plots, by distracting the attention, prevents the passions from rising to any height. Hence the absurdity of two independent actions in the same play. There may indeed be underplots; but the poet should make these subservient to the main action. They should conspire to bring forward the catastrophe of the play.
Of a separate and independent action, or intrigue, there is a clear example in Addison's Cato. The subject of this tragedy is the death of Cato, a noble personage, and supported by the author with much dignity. But all the love scenes in the play; the passion of Cato's two
sons for Lucia, and that of Juba for Cato's daughter, are mere episodes. They break the unity of the subject and form a very unseasonable junction of gallantry with high sentiments of patriotism.
Unity of action must not, however, be confounded with simplicity of plot. Unity and simplicity import different things in dramatic composition. The plot is simple when a small number of incidents is introduced into it. With respect to plots, the ancients were more simple than the moderns. The Greek tragedies appear, indeed, to be too naked, and destitute of interesting events. The moderns admit a much greater variety of incidents ; which is certainly an improvement, as it renders the entertainment more animated and more instructive. It may, howev. er, be carried too far; for an overcharge of action and intrigue produce perplexity and embarrassment. Of this, the Mourning Bride of Con
of greve is an example. The incidents succeed each other too rapidly; and the catastrophe, which ought to be plain and simple, is artificial and intricate.
Unity of action must be maintained, not only in the general construction of the fable, but in all the acts and scenes of the play. The division of ev.. ery play into five acts is founded merely on common practice and the authority of Horace:
Neve minor, neu sit quinto productior actu .
There is nothing in nature which fixes this rule. On the Greek stage the division by acts was unknown. The word act never occurs onge.
in the poetics of Aristotle. Practice, however, has established this division ; and the poet must be careful that each act terminate in a proper place. The first act should contain a clear exposition of the subject. It should excite curiosity, and introduce the personages to the acquaintance of the spectators. During the second, third, and fourth acts, the plots should gradually thicken. The passions should be kept constantly awake. There should be no scenes of idle conyersation, or mere declamation.
The suspense and concern of the spectators should be excited more and more. This is the great excellency of Shakespeare. Sentiment, passion, pity and terror, should pervade every tragedy.
In the filth act, which is the seat of the catastrophe, the author should most fully display his art and genius. The first requisite is, that the unravelling of the plot be brought about by probable and natural means. Secondly, the catastrophe should be simple, depending on few events, and including but few persons. Passionate sensibility languishes when divided among many objects. Lastly, in the catastrophe every thing should be warm and glowing; and the poet must be simple, serious, and pathetic; using no language but that of nature.
It is not essential to the catastrophe of a tragedy, that it end unhappily. Sufficient distress and agitation with many tender emotions may be raised in the course of the play. But in general the spirit of tragedy leans to the side of leaving the impression of virtuous sorrow strong upon the mind.